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North Korea leader promotes son

North Korea's Kim Jong Il has made his youngest son a four-star general in a major promotion seen as confirmation that he is to become the country's next leader.

The announcement appeared in state media hours before a historic Workers' Party meeting where Kim, 68 and apparently in deteriorating health, was expected to grant son Kim Jong Un and other family members top posts in plans to take the communist dynasty into a third generation.

The North Korean capital Pyongyang was in a festive mood, with banners and placards celebrating the meeting, the communist country's biggest political gathering in 30 years.

It was state media's first mention of Kim Jong Un, who has remained so well hidden from the outside world that not even his face or exact age can be confirmed. He is believed to be 27 or 28, and is said to have been schooled in Switzerland and educated at Kim Il Sung Military University in Pyongyang.

However, it is clear that "Kim Jong Un's promotion is the starting point for his formal succession to power," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.

"It's clearly the biggest news we've had from North Korea since the death of Kim Il Sung," said Peter Beck, a Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi research fellow at Keio University in Tokyo."

The appointment also appears aimed at putting the son at the helm of his father's "songun," or military-first, policy. He is expected to take up other top military jobs such as commander of the 1.2 million-member military.

The secrecy surrounding the succession process is typical of the communist country, and reminiscent of Kim Jong Il's own rise to power.

Kim Jong Il was 31 when he won the number two post in the ruling Workers' Party in 1973, an appointment seen as a key step in the path to succeeding his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung.

The following year, Kim was formally tapped as the future leader but state media did not reveal that to the outside world until the landmark 1980 convention, the last big political meeting in North Korea. He took over as leader in 1994 when his father died of heart failure in what was communism's first hereditary succession.

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